Even Odds (FBI Joint Task Force #3) by Fiona Quinn (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve Marvel

even odds

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Double crossed. Double agents. Doubling down… She’s putting her heart and her life on the line.

Raine Meyers is alive today only because of the heroic efforts of the Delta Force Echo Team. It’s time to pay that debt.

As an undercover defense intelligence officer, Raine tracks a Russian threat to the Delta Force wives left vulnerable while their husbands are downrange protecting the US.

FBI Special Agent in Charge Damian Prescott, former Delta Force operator – also Raine’s former fiance – falls quite literally into the middle of her operation.

Since both the DIA and FBI have their teeth clamped onto the same crime, why not join forces? A plan is hatched to insert the two intelligence officers into the action – under the cover of a fake marriage – painting a target on Raine’s back, enticing the mole out into the open.

Damian wasn’t there when his Delta Force brothers saved Raine from the terrorists in Afghanistan…will he be there for her this time, when she’s in the sniper’s rifle sights?

Rating: Narration – D+; Content – C+/B-

Even Odds is book three in Fiona Quinn’s FBI Joint Task Force series set in her wider World of Iniquus series of interconnected romantic suspense novels. I enjoyed the previous two books – Open Secret and Cold Red, which were narrated by Teddy Hamilton and Troy Duran respectively – and was looking forward to another fast-paced, well-plotted story, but when I sat down to write this review after listening to all ten and a half hours of Even Odds, I realised I had a problem. Steve Marvel’s narration just isn’t up to the standard set by the other two performers, and it was so distracting that I just couldn’t get into the story. I got the bare bones of the plot, but I’ve probably missed some of the detail.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Vicar and the Rake (Society of Beasts #1) by Annabelle Green (audiobook) – Narrated by Cornell Collins

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

As a young man, Sir Gabriel Winters left behind his status as a gentleman, turning his back on his secret desires and taking a self-imposed vow of celibacy. Now he’s a chaste, hardworking vicar, and his reputation is beyond reproach. But, try as he might, he’s never forgotten the man he once desired or the pain of being abandoned by his first love.

Edward Stanhope, the duke of Caddonfell, is a notorious rake, delighting in scandal no matter the consequence. With a price on his head, he flees to the countryside, forced to keep his presence a secret or risk assassination. When Edward finds Gabriel on his estate, burning with fever, he cannot leave him to die, but taking him in puts them both in jeopardy.

With the help of a notorious blackmailer, a society of rich and famous gentlemen who prefer gentlemen, and a kitten named Buttons, they might just manage to save Edward’s life – but the greatest threat may be to their hearts.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – D

I’m always on the lookout for new m/m historicals, and Carina Press, who published the print edition of début author Annabelle Greene’s The Vicar and the Rake, has a pretty good track record when it comes to LGBTQ+ romance. When I saw that Cornell Collins would be narrating this title, I decided to listen rather than read which, in one way was a good decision, because his polished, accomplished narration was absolutely the best thing about it. In another way? Not so much, as even his expertise couldn’t disguise what is essentially a weak story with poorly defined characters, no romantic tension or chemistry, plot points that made no sense and a completely ridiculous ending.

Okay, so a quick resumé of the plot, such as it is. Reverend Sir Gabriel Winters decided to give up a life of luxury for that of a country vicar when he was younger, and along with his holy orders, turned his back on his secret desires and took a self-imposed vow of celibacy – which basically amounts to “God, I know I’m gay but I vow never to act upon it.” Gabriel pretty much grew up with his best friend, Edward Stanhope, now the Duke of Caddonfell, a man so visibly, arrogantly, dangerously libertine that his nickname, whispered from one end of England to the other, was simply Scandal. And: The terror of every mother in the ton, not for their daughters, but for their sons. The most infamous sodomite in London.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Colton 911: Agent By Her Side by Deborah Fletcher Mello

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She’ll do anything to track a killer

If P.I. Kiely Colton must work with FBI agent Cooper Winston, she will. But to solve a cold case, she won’t change her break-the-rules style to accommodate the single father’s by-the-book principles. But Kiely finds herself inexplicably attracted to her new partner. Will a ruthless killer put an end to their future before it begins?

Rating: D

The Colton 911: Grand Rapids series is part of a wider universe featuring members of the Colton family (who are all military, law enforcement or in some other related profession) who live and work across the US.  It’s a multi-author series, in which all the books are supposed to be able to stand alone, but as I quickly discovered not long after I started reading Colton 911: Agent By Her Side (book four in the Grand Rapids series) the need to incorporate various items of backstory led to lots and lots of mind-numbing info-dumps that added precisely nothing to the main storyline.

The overarching plot of this mini-series concerns the search for con artist Wes Matthews, who has defrauded people of millions and endangered lives by selling a fake supplement promising to be a fountain of youth called RevitaYou that containes traces of Ricin, AND scammed most of his investors out of a fortune via a dodgy pyramid scheme.  Matthews has eluded capture so far, but this story opens with a call to the FBI tip line with information that he’s holed up in a remote location by Reeds Lake.  The person manning the tip line is not an FBI agent or employee but a local PI, Kiely Colton – which felt completely unlikely; why would the FBI employ a PI to man their phones?  (And is it ‘Keeley’ or ‘Kylie’?  I like to pronounce names correctly in my head when I’m reading, and continually wondering what it was supposed to be pulled me out of the story almost every time I saw it.)

Anyway, Kiely takes the tip to Special Agent Cooper Winston, with whom we’re told she has butted heads in the past, and who is heading up the hunt for Matthews. Kiely and Cooper are just about to head out to the lake to check out the tip when Cooper gets a call from his son’s preschool to say that little Alfie has been snatched.  An anonymous phone call after they arrive telling Cooper to stop the search for Matthews confirms suspicions that whoever took Alfie is related to the case somehow, so Cooper and Kiely decide to check out the cottage at Reeds Lake and whaddya know?  Alfie and the kidnapper are there!

They rescue Alfie – but Cooper suffers a couple of cracked ribs, a head injury and a concussion, and receives strict instructions from the doctor that he’s to take it easy for six weeks – how on earth will he manage? No prizes for guessing he asks Kiely to become his live-in nanny.

Kiely – who isn’t fond of kids and whose sisters insist she doesn’t have a maternal bone in her body – finds that Alfie has “somehow wrangled a tight grip on her heart”  She’s a domestic goddess, making  gourmet meals and getting Alfie to eat whatever she serves up without complaint.  A couple of days later, Cooper’s house is bombed and he’s once again warned off searching for Matthews.

Cooper, Kiely and Alfie are moved to a luxury safe house where Kiely gets to do yet more gourmet cooking, more bonding with Alfie and more making eyes at Cooper. Oh, no wait – there’s no making eyes, and no romantic tension between Cooper and Kiely whatsoever.  We’re told they’re attracted to each other – Kiely finds the sight of Cooper in nothing but his boxers causes “heat [to] course straight though her feminine spirit” for example (whatever the hell a “feminine spirit” is – Gin? Vodka?) – but shown nothing to back it up.

After the move to the safe house, we tread water until around the three-quarters mark, but I’d lost interest long before then.  And I had to wonder – how safe is a safe house where the people living there can make phone calls on their personal mobiles, go out grocery shopping and have their sister over to visit? There are so many inconsistencies in the story I can’t possibly point to them all. We spend over half the book watching Cooper and Kiely play Happy Families while the author talks up their non-existent connection, until Kiely comes out with this gem:

“Are you interested in a relationship, Cooper?”

Before they’ve even kissed – but even if they had, who SAYS something like that?!

There are a couple of sex scenes, hence the ‘warm’ rating going by AAR’s guidelines, but personally, I’d rate it as ‘damp (and not in a good way!) squib’ – and it’s full of flowery language about “sensual gratification” and “hedonistic decadence” and “heat rising like a vengeance between them” – when there’s no heat at all.

The writing is wooden and cliché-laden; my Kindle is bursting with notes, but here’s one choice passage:

“She was sunshine in the midst of a storm.  Her carefree spirit was like a breath of fresh air.  She was light in a well of darkness. She was everything he had been missing in his lie.  He had vowed to never love again, but something about Kiely had him reconsidering that pledge.”

PUH-LEEEZE.

And when Cooper says this to Kiely:

“Who knows why women do what they do? I stopped trying to figure you and your kind out years ago.”

I was hard pressed to remember that this book was published in 2020 and was written by a woman.

So we’ve got a plot that basically goes nowhere, a commitment shy hero and heroine, a bunch of family connections far too large to keep track of, and Alfie the wonder-kid,  one of those miraculous plot-moppets who, though often referred to as “the baby” can say things like “Open da door, Ki-Ki! Got to go potty!” and “Me was a bad boy. Alfie will be good, okay?” , and is confused when he registers that Kiely’s twin sister looks like Kiely but isn’t her. (I’m not sure a toddler would notice or care much about it!)

Colton 911: Agent By Her Side is the first book I’ve read by this author and on this showing, it’ll be the last.  I haven’t read any of the other books in this series, and even though they’re by a variety of authors, I’m not exactly inspired with confidence to try another one.  This one isn’t romantic, it’s not suspenseful and to call the characters cardboard cut-outs is, frankly, an insult to cardboard-cut outs everywhere.

Manners & Mannerisms by Tanya Chris (audiobook) – Narrated by Joel Leslie

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon
Everyone in Highley eagerly anticipates the arrival of Reginald Abernathy, the new master of Albon Manor. Everyone, that is, except Lord William Bascomb. William knows he’ll be expected to woo Reginald’s sister, and he can’t summon the interest for it. But when the Abernathys arrive at last, William discovers he’s interested after all – in Reginald. Reginald is the most handsome, most dashing, most intriguing man he’s ever known. Better yet, he seems to share William’s preference for men. The addition of the Abernathys to Highley suits everyone. William’s sister adores Reginald’s, Aunt Harriet foresees many happy matches between the two families, William’s sister-in-law is pleased at the prospect of unloading her penniless relatives at last, and all the eligible ladies in Highley want the man who only has eyes for William. Against a backdrop of elegant balls and frolicking picnics, William and Reginald enjoy furtive moments of ecstasy until a scandal erupts, forcing William to choose between Reginald and the only life he’s ever known.

Rating: Narration – A-; Content – D

Manners & Mannerisms is a standalone m/m historical romance by Tanya Chris, who is the author of a number of contemporary and paranormal romances – and based on this, I’d suggest she should stick to those, because historicals clearly aren’t her forté. The story is dreadfully dull, and had I not agreed to review it, I’d probably have DNF’ed; even the fabulous Joel Leslie can’t turn this audiobook into anything other than it is – painfully uneventful and completely devoid of chemistry and humour. Our PoV character is Lord William Bascombe, younger brother of the Marquess of Eldridge. The family is very strapped for cash thanks to their father’s mismanagement, and they have avoided destitution by the marquess’ marriage to an heiress. William and his younger siblings, Frederick and Catherine, still live at the family home, although William knows that he should be considering taking a wife for himself and setting up his own household. He also knows that he is not inclined towards women, and has instead resigned himself to living alone. His aunt, however, has other ideas; Mr. Reginald Abernathy of Virginia – the new owner of the neighbouring estate of Albon Manor – would be an excellent choice of suitor for Catherine, and more than that, he has a sister of marriageable age who would no doubt make William a good wife. You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Thorn in His Side by Helen Juliet (audiobook) – Narrated by Kieran Flitton

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

The last thing beautiful, inexperienced Joshua Bellamy wants is an arranged marriage with the terrifying Darius Legrand. But if Joshua wants to save himself and his family from being thrown onto the streets by Darius’s father, he has no choice.

However, when Darius goes to extreme lengths to rescue Joshua from near-death, Joshua has to wonder if there’s more to his beastly husband than he previously thought.

Darius Legrand, a former captain, is used to being manipulated by his cruel father, but when Joshua is dragged into the feud between their families, he decides something has to change.

Protecting Joshua is one thing, but Darius knows that falling in love can’t be an option. Someone so young and beautiful could never give his heart to an older, ill-tempered brute like Darius.

Joshua is determined to bring joy to Darius’s life again, and Darius refuses to let Joshua hide his sweetness from the world any longer. Over time, it becomes clear that despite their differences, their hearts are drawing closer together.

But can happiness ever be possible for a rose and a thorn, when Darius’s father will go to any lengths to see his deadly game through?

Rating: Narration – B; Content – D+

Helen Juliet’s A Thorn in His Side is an m/m retelling of Beauty and the Beast, but it’s a bit of a mess right from the start.  To begin with, the setting is confusing.  I did read the synopsis before opting to review it and the setting wasn’t mentioned, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting it to be a fantasy or some sort of AU historical (AU because there’s no problem with a gay marriage) – but no, it’s 21st century Kent.   But this version of 21st century Kent, not too far from Folkestone is somewhere remote and off the grid with no mobile signal or internet.  Um.  Okay. But the hero is an adult, and rich enough to live in a castle… he can’t pick up the landline to Virgin, BT or Sky?   Anyway, he’s our Beast figure.  Darius Legrand  is a heavily scarred, thirty-seven-year-old military veteran who lives in the aforementioned  castle in the wilds of Kent, has plenty of money of his own (an inheritance from his late mother) and who is, for some reason I couldn’t understand, terrified of his father – who comes and goes as he pleases – and puts up no fight whatsoever against his nefarious schemes.

Beauty is Joshua Bellamy (BELL-amy – geddit?) the twenty-one year old, totally gorgeous son of a business associate of Victor Legrand’s and when his father suffers some disastrous losses, Joshua agrees to marry Darius in order to prevent their being made destitute; Darius marries Joshua because… er… his dad told him to?  Joshua is slightly built and worries he’s not very ‘manly’ – he’s also like the worst kind of simpering romance heroine who cries a lot, indulges in weepy hand-wringing and thinks of her incredible beauty as something of a curse.  Oh, and he’s a virgin.

So we’ve got the scarred veteran who thinks there’s no way such a beautiful young man could possibly be interested in him, and the beautiful young man who, after being a bit scared of his new husband, starts to discover a softer side to him while also wondering if such a piece of hunky hawtness could possibly fancy a l’il femmy guy like him.

And then there’s the baddie.  Victor Legrand is… well comparing him to a pantomime villain is, frankly, an insult to pantomime villains everywhere.  He seems to be present in the story for no other reason than to be the evilest evil that ever evilled.

It’s very rare for me to DNF a book or audiobook I’ve agreed to review, but I gave up at around 70%, which I consider to be enough of a sample to justify my comments.  I only stuck with it that long because I wanted to give new-to-me narrator Kieran Flitton a fair crack of the whip.  His performance is easily the best thing about this audiobook, and I would definitely listen to him again, although – hopefully – in better material.  His voice is attractive, his diction is clear and easy to understand and while his pacing is perhaps the teeniest bit on the slow side, it wasn’t really an issue.  His character differentiation is good and his vocal characterisations suit the characters with Darius speaking in deeper, resonant tones while Joshua’s voice is higher pitched and he’s more softly spoken.  Some of his European (?) accents are a bit dodgy, and there were some pronunciation issues which should have been picked up;  “monsieur” (it’s “m’sieu”);  Folkestone (it’s “st’n” not “stone” at the end)  and the pronunciation of Darius as “Daah-rius” while it might have been correct (although I’m not sure), was extremely irritating.  Where Mr. Flitton really excels is in the quieter moments and intimate scenes between Darius and Joshua, and the love scenes are extremely well done (Shane East – look out, you’ve got some serious competition in the sexy Brit department!)

As is obvious, I can’t recommend Thorn in His Side; the idea was a good one, but the execution is severely lacking.  I recently enjoyed a couple of the audiobooks in the Pine Cove series by Ms. Juliet’s alter-ego, H.J. Welch and had hoped for more of the same, but what I found instead was a story that moved slower than a snail through molasses and smelled far more of elderly cheese than roses.

 

The Bachelor by (Duke Dynasty #2) by Sabrina Jeffries (audiobook) – Narrated by Beverley A. Crick


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Lady Gwyn Drake has long protected her family’s reputation by hiding an imprudent affair from her youth. But when her former suitor appears at Armitage Hall, manhandling the heiress and threatening to go public with her secrets, it’s Gwyn who needs protecting. Her twin brother, Thorn, hires Joshua Wolfe, the estate’s gamekeeper, to keep her safe in London during her debut. As a war hero, Joshua feels obligated to fulfill the assignment he has accepted. But as a man, it’s torment to be so very close to the beauty he’s fought to ignore….

With handsome Joshua monitoring her every move, Gwyn would prefer to forget both the past and the parade of money-seeking bachelors at her coming out. But Joshua is unmoved by her attempts at flirtation, and the threat of blackmail still hangs over her. With danger closing in, Gwyn must decide which is the greater risk: deflecting a scoundrel’s attempts to sabotage her – or revealing her whole heart to the rugged bodyguard she can’t resist….

Rating: Narration – B; Content – D

The Bachelor is book two in Sabrina Jeffries’ Duke’s Dynasty series, which features the offspring of a duchess who was married three times, to three different dukes. I’d planned to review book one, Project Duchess, when it came out last year, but problems with my review copy meant I wasn’t able to finish it. I believe there are overarching plotlines relating to a mystery begun in book one, but those don’t come into play here until fairly late on and don’t have any real bearing on the central storyline or romance.

I’ve read and listened to a number of books by this author and have enjoyed them, but unfortunately, I can’t say the same of The Bachelor, which is short on plot, shorter on romantic chemistry and long on boredom.

The heroine of this book is Lady Gwyn Drake, twin sister of the Duke of Thornstock and the only female of the duchess’ five children. Gwyn and her brother have spent most of their lives in Berlin and returned to England only recently; she is thirty-years-old and doesn’t expect to marry, but as the sister of a newly-minted duke, is preparing to make her début in London society. When the book opens, she has agreed to meet with a former… er… acquaintance, Lionel Malet, in response to the letter he sent demanding money to keep quiet about the secrets which could ruin her good name. It’s not explicitly stated at this stage what those secrets are, but it’s easy to guess.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Master’s New Governess by Eliza Redgold

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A new position for the governess

As mistress of Pendragon Hall?

Unfairly dismissed from her previous position, her reputation ruined, governess Maud Wilmot is forced to take on a new identity. When she feels an ever-growing attraction to her new employer, Cornish railway entrepreneur Dominic Jago, Maud longs to reveal the truth. But doing so could end their fledgling romance before it’s truly begun…

Rating: D

Harlequin Historical has a fairly good track record and has a number of my favourite authors on its roster, so I picked up new-to-me author Eliza Redgold’s The Master’s New Governess in hopeful anticipation of another enjoyable, romantic read. But I was sadly disappointed. What I found instead was a dully plodding story, bland, barely two-dimensional characters and a romance that never got off the ground.

The position of a governess could be a very uncomfortable and insecure one, something brought home to Miss Maud Wilmot when she is dismissed from her position without a character for reasons which are merely alluded to, but which are easy to work out. Without references, she will not be able to secure another post, but as luck would have it, her sister Martha – who is recently married – had secured a situation in Cornwall prior to her marriage and has not yet written to decline it. So – with Martha’s full knowledge – Maud (pretending to be Martha) writes to Sir Dominic Jago of Pendragon Hall to accept the position as governess to his seven-year-old daughter, Rosabel, and is very soon on her way.

She has been sent a first class ticket for the last leg of her journey – even though it’s very unusual for a governess to travel in such luxury – and gets her first, unexpected glimpse of her new employer when he intervenes to resolve a dispute on the train. Maud knew Sir Dominic was a businessman, but hadn’t realised he’s the owner of the West Cornish Railway.

Arrived at the hall, Sir Dominic (the author makes a point of having Maud think that he should be addressed as Sir Firstname and not Sir Lastname – which is correct, so why hit readers over the head with it?) broaches a delicate subject before introducing Maud to her charge.  The last two governesses he employed had entertained “a fantasy of certain governesses that they might marry the master of the house.”  He wants to make it absolutely clear that he has no interest in remarrying and won’t tolerate any romantic notions about him on her part.  Maud quickly assures him she has absolutely no interest in anything other than educating his daughter.

To be fair to Maud, she does mean it.  But she doesn’t know she’s in a romance novel.

So, of course, romantic notions do eventually take root on both sides, but the pacing of the story is dreadfully slow, there’s so little chemistry between the characters  I’d actually put it in negative figures, and the writing is so full of overblown sentimentality and navel-gazing that I’d have been better entertained watching grass grow.  There’s no tension or forward momentum in the story at all (the only real bone of contention being that Maud is pretending to be Martha) and most of the story is devoted to Maud and Dominic busily castigating themselves for being attracted to the other, and thinking any relationship other than that of master and servant is impossible.

When they do finally kiss about two thirds of the way into the book, our hero is, of course, completely blown away and thinks it was better than any of the sex he had with his dead wife. While Maud, who –

had thought that the sensitive, previous part of her had been numbed, frozen, half-dead, unable to come alive.

(Not to belabour a point, of course.)

Starts to feel all those tingly feminine feelings rushing back.

Oh, puhleeze.

And naturally, Maud is the sort of governess who could put Mary Poppins to shame. We’re told  she’s far more popular than any previous governess had been. Dominic tells her early on that he’s worried that Rosabel has become overly timid, and he can “barely encourage her out of doors.”  But hey, whaddya know?  On her very first morning, Maud gets Rosabel outside to release a butterfly into the garden, and from that moment, she’s outside almost all the time, and Dominic’s fears are forgotten.  Maud makes up stories about butterflies every night, they go butterfly hunting by day, Dominic buys a vivarium for the butterflies… so yes, if you’re not fascinated by butterflies (or railways), you’re not going to have a lot of fun with this book.  Actually, that’s probably true even if you are fascinated by butterflies or railways.

There’s an evil Other Woman who has all the subtlety of a pantomime villain – she crops up to be nasty to Maud and taunt her with her plans to marry Dominic (she makes Blanche Ingram appear pleasant by comparison). Dominic speaks in info dumps about railways half the time and while I appreciated Maud’s dedication to the cause of female education, her speech to the evil OW near the end was preachy and only needed a flashing neon sign saying ‘important message here.’

As I said at the beginning, Harlequin has some terrific authors of historical romance in its stable who are able to write engaging stories, rounded characters and believable, well-developed romances within the shorter page-count generally allocated to the category romance – and I’m not going to let this dud put me off reading them.  But I’d advise giving The Master’s New Governess a miss.

Ricochet (Out for Justice #1) by Reese Knightley (audiobook) – Narrated by Tristan James

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

WITSEC victim Noah Bradford knows secrets that could get him killed, and staying hidden seems like a good plan. What he didn’t plan on is losing his heart to a man who is sworn to protect him.

Battle scarred US Marshal Robert “Mac” Mackenzie has a job to do, and guaranteeing the safety of Noah Bradford is at the top of that list. Mac will do whatever it takes to keep Noah safe, even if it means walking away.

Mac and Noah, brought together during extreme circumstances, have been separated by evil. It’s been six years, give or take, and Noah is coming for vengeance against the men who killed his mother. He’s on a collision course with Mac, who has no idea of the man Noah has become. Sparks fly and the heat sizzles when these two powerful men are reunited, but will they survive the passion the past created?

Rating: Narration – B-; Content – D+

I liked the sound of Ricochet, the first in new-to-me author Reese Knightley’s Out for Justice series of romantic suspense novels featuring a team of elite operatives known as Phoenix. I hadn’t, when I requested the title, realised it was the author’s début book – not that I have anything against first-time authors, in fact, I’ve found some terrific stories and authors to look out for by reading or listening to débuts – but sadly, this author and this book don’t fall into that category. The story itself feels like a bare-bones outline that needs a lot of fleshing out; there are elements of the storytelling that just don’t work, the characterisation is thin, there’s way too much telling and not enough showing, and the writing itself is distinctly average and could have used a good editor to weed out the annoying repetitions and overblown, clichéd phrases.

Seventeen-year-old Noah Bradford is inducted into the Witness Protection Program after he and his best friend Jenny are rescued from the compound belonging to Terrance Manning, the vicious criminal who murdered Noah’s mother. For reasons we don’t learn until much later, Manning was intent on grooming Noah to be his second-in-command and eventual successor, but rather than treating him as some sort of favourite, he instead tried to crush Noah – in both body and spirit – at every opportunity. During the raid on the compound by the FBI, police and US Marshals, Noah is found by Marshal Rob Mackenzie (Mac) and helped to safety. Neither Manning nor his chief henchman – Noah’s stepfather – are to be found; they’ve managed to get away.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Mad Countess (Gothic Brides #1) by Erica Monroe

This title may be purchased from Amazon

When Lady Claire Deering’s mother enters an insane asylum, society is quick to scorn her, dubbing her the Mad Daughter. But Claire’s tattered reputation is the least of her worries, as those rumors hold a horrible, terrifying truth: the Deering women are victims of a dark witch’s curse. If Claire marries her true love, she’ll spend the rest of her life under the thrall of madness.To save herself, she remains isolated…until a will reading at a mysterious castle on All Hallows Eve places her in close confines with her dearest friend and secret love.

Bashful, scholarly Teddy Lockwood has never met a rule he didn’t rejoice in following. When he unexpectedly inherits the Ashbrooke earldom, he’s determined to turn over a new, more courageous leaf–starting with telling Claire that he’s loved her since they were children. The will reading presents the perfect opportunity to win her heart, even if he’s vastly out of his element at this enigmatic, shadowy Cornwall castle. Soon, the simmering passion between them becomes unstoppable. Now, to save the love of his life, Teddy will do whatever it takes to break the dark magic’s hold on Claire. Will Claire spend her life within the grips of strange delirium, or will love prove the strongest of all?

Rating: D

I had to dig around a bit for something to fit the “We Love Short Shorts!” prompt this time around; I know I don’t have to follow the prompts in the TBR Challenge to the letter, but I was short of time this month anyway, so a quick read was just about all I had time for.  As it was, I probably spent more time searching through the hundreds of books on my Kindle than I did actually reading!  In the end, I found a novella I’ve had sitting around for a while by an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past; The Mad Countess by Erica Monroe, which is billed as an edgy, atmospheric Gothic Regency Romance that’s not for the faint of heart.  Sadly, however, it was about as edgy as a bowl of cold rice pudding, and seemed to be suffering from an identity crisis.

The romance is a friends-to-lovers affair, the two protagonists being childhood friends who have long been in love with one another but are afraid to speak up for fear of losing their friendship.  And in the case of the heroine, Lady Claire Deering, there’s another, far darker reason for her reticence.  Her aunt and her mother both died mad as the result of being cursed, and she is terrified that she will end up being committed to an asylum as her mother was.  She loves Teddy – Theodore, Earl of Ashbrooke – far too much to want to saddle him with a potential madwoman for a wife and has therefore determined never to reveal the truth of her feelings for him.

Teddy had been training to be a barrister before his older brother died and left him the earldom.  He’s a sweet beta-hero who loves Claire desperately; he knows of her fears but is determined to prove to her that they are unfounded and is, at last, ready to tell her how he feels.

Claire has arrived at Castle Keyvnor in Cornwall in order to attend the reading of the will of her late uncle, and Teddy is in attendance with a group of friends (who I’m guessing are the heroes of the other novellas in this series).  In spite of her determination to keep her distance, Claire can’t help being delighted to see him, and they quickly fall back into their established pattern of friendship.  But that all changes the next day when they’re caught in a rainstorm and make it to the conveniently dry, comfortable folly/summer house and Claire decides she can allow herself an afternoon of passion (just the one, mind you).

But Teddy doesn’t just want one afternoon – how can he prove to Claire that the curse isn’t real and that they can make a life together?

Quite honestly, the pair of them were so bland I couldn’t become at all invested in the outcome and had I not been reading this for the TBR Challenge, I probably would have abandoned it.  The characterisation is one-dimensional, the atmosphere is flat as a pancake and the gothic elements are weak and terribly disappointing.  I read paranormal and fantasy novels fairly regularly, so having a supernatural element to the book didn’t put me off; the problem was the complete lack of world-building or preparation.  At one point, I thought the author was going to explain away the aunt and mother’s “madness” as a form of post-natal depression (there’s overt mention of the fact that both women didn’t go mad until after they’d had children), and that the curse wasn’t real, but she doesn’t do that, instead veering into a badly prepared episode in which Clare locates a trio of local witches and enlists their help in lifting the curse. This whole section is so different in tone to the rest of the book that it feels as though it’s been added as an afterthought.

The writing is just average, and there are quite a few jarring word choices that  took me out of the story – such as when one character asks another “are you fine?”  In that context, “fine”, doesn’t mean the same as “okay” or “alright” (not in British English, anyway).

Novellas are generally hit and miss for me (more often they miss the mark), so this disappointment wasn’t unexpected.  Ms. Monroe has produced better books than this (I’ve reviewed some of them here) so forget about The Mad Countess and check out one of those instead.

The Princess Plan (Royal Weddings #1) by Julia London

This title may be purchased from Amazon

London’s high society loves nothing more than a scandal. And when the personal secretary of the visiting Prince Sebastian of Alucia is found murdered, it’s all anyone can talk about, including Eliza Tricklebank. Her unapologetic gossip gazette has benefited from an anonymous tip off about the crime, forcing Sebastian to ask for her help in his quest to find his friend’s killer.

With a trade deal on the line and mounting pressure to secure a noble bride, there’s nothing more dangerous than a prince socialising with a commoner. Sebastian finds Eliza’s contrary manner as frustrating as it is seductive, but they’ll have to work together if they’re going to catch the culprit. And soon, as temptation becomes harder to ignore, it’s the prince who’ll have to decide what comes first—his country or his heart.

Rating: D+

I’ve read and enjoyed a number of Julia London’s books in the past, so I thought I’d give her latest title a try.  The Princess Plan is billed as a mixture of mystery and romance, in which a visiting prince teams up with a lively spinster to solve a murder and falls in love along the way.  It seemed as though it might be an enjoyable romp, but sadly wasn’t.  The mystery wasn’t mysterious, the romantic development was non-existent, it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t a romp.  Unless you define a romp as pages of inane chatter and un-funny attempts at banter that seem to exist only as a way of padding out the page count.

Miss Eliza Tricklebank is twenty-eight years of age, and a spinster who keeps house for her father, a Justice of the Queen’s Bench (who has recently lost his sight) and mends clocks to earn a little something on the side.  Her sister Hollis is a widow who inherited a publishing business from her late husband and now publishes Honeycutt’s Gazette of Fashion and Domesticity for Ladies, and her best friend Lady Caroline Hawke is a debutante (well, she’s described as such, but if she’s the same age as Hollis or Eliza then she’s quite an elderly debutante!), and together the three of them spend lots of time chattering about nothing in particular while also deciding what to put in the next edition of the Gazette.  Under discussion when the book opens, is the visit to London by a delegation from the small (fictional) country of Alucia, in London in order to negotiate a new trade agreement at the behest of its crown prince, who is rumoured to be in search of a bride.

Caroline – who, we’re told, knows everybody in London – is able to secure invitations to the masked ball held in honour of the visit for herself and her friends, and it’s here that Eliza, quietly getting tipsy on the rum punch, makes the acquaintance of a gentleman she later realises is none other than Crown Prince Sebastian.

You’re shocked, I can tell.

Flirting and silliness ensure until Sebastian has to go to put in an appearance at the meet and greet portion of the evening, after which he finds himself a woman for the night.  This means Sebastian never does go to meet with his secretary and dear friend Matous, who had told him he needed to see him as a matter of urgency.

And who turns up dead the next morning, his throat cut.

Of course the proper authorities are informed, but Sebastian isn’t impressed with the way they seem to be handling things and decides to investigate the matter himself, much to the displeasure of his brother and the rest of his staff.  And when, a day or so later, an accusation is levelled against a member of the delegation – printed in a lady’s gazette – Sebastian is furious and demands to speak with the author of such unsubstantiated rubbish.

Thus do Eliza and Sebastian find themselves investigating the murder, but the mystery – and I use the term very loosely – is so incredibly weak that it’s impossible to invest in, and the identity of the villain(s) is telegraphed early on, so it’s obvious to everyone – except Sebastian it seems, who thus comes across as really dim.  And when the mystery is solved, the reader is not present when the full extent of the plot is revealed and is merely told about it afterwards.

The romantic relationship is equally lacklustre.  There’s no emotional connection between Sebastian and Eliza, no build-up to their first kiss and absolutely no chemistry between them.  The conflict in their romance is, of course, that Sebastian is royalty and Eliza is a commoner and thus ineligible to become his wife; plus he needs to marry a woman with pedigree and connections – and Eliza has neither.  The solution to this dilemma is ridiculously convoluted and, unless corrections have been made to the ARC I read, doesn’t work.  Sebastian’s solution is to find a way to make Eliza’s father a Baron, which will make her a Lady and thus an eligible bride.  Er… no. The daughter of a Baron is not a Lady, she’s still a Miss (a Right Honourable). To be a Lady, Eliza’s father would have had to have been made an Earl at least.  Seriously, this information is available widely on the internet and it took me ten seconds to find it.

Eliza is obviously meant to be one of those ‘breath of fresh air’, quirky heroines who doesn’t abide by the rules.  She points out, for instance, that while other young ladies must be accompanied by a maid when they go out, she goes wherever she likes on her own; she stood in the middle of London without fanfare all the time. Conversely, Sebastian is hemmed in by all sorts of rules and restrictions that accompany his position – he frequently bemoans the fact that he cannot go out alone, that he has very little privacy and so on and so on… so I had to wonder why free-spirited Eliza – who sees first hand just how restricted Sebastian’s life is – would want to subject herself to the same constraints.  And Sebastian is… well, I finished the book less than an hour ago, and I can’t remember much about him at all.

The Princess Plan doesn’t work as a mystery or a romance, and the plot –such as it is – is not substantial enough to fill a full-length novel.  The characters are unmemorable, the pacing is sluggish and quite honestly, I was bored.  As an alternative to The Princess Plan, might I suggest The Watching Paint Dry Plan, or The Watching Grass Grow Plan, either of which might afford a similar level of entertainment.